Axilla Lymph Nodes and Breast Cancer

Axillary nodes are the first place breast cancer typically spreads.

Cancer Detection. Science Photo Library / Getty Images

Axilla sounds like a strange and foreign word, but its definition is that it's simply your armpit. It is the rounded area beneath your shoulder where your arm and body meet. Located in your axilla is your axillary artery and vein, nerves, a cluster of lymph nodes and other tissue.

The Axilla and Breast Cancer

Lymph vessel run throughout the whole body carrying lymph fluid and cells. Lymph nodes are clusters of immune cells that store white blood cells that help fight infections and disease. The lymph nodes in the axilla area are called axillary nodes. Breast cancer most commonly spreads to this area. Because of how common cancer can be in the axilla, some axillary nodes may be removed during surgery to see if cancer is present in the sample. This can help your physician or oncologist determine the cancer's stage and help determine the appropriate treatment. 

How Is an Axillary Node Biopsy Performed?

A common procedure used to determine the presence of cancer is a sentinel node biopsy. A substance or dye is injected into the breast and help the doctor locate the appropriate nodes to remove. The first node that absorbs the dye is called the sentinel node; it is also the area that can contract breast cancer first. 

That node is sent off to a lab to see if cancer cells are in the node. If the sentinel node does not have cancer present, it is unlikely that your other nodes will have it either. In that case, further surgery is not necessary.

What Is an Axillary Dissection?

 If cancer is present, an axillary dissection will be performed where more lymph nodes may be removed. The axillary dissection will determine how many lymph nodes have cancer and minimize the chance that cancer will return cancer in the lymph nodes. For women with a form of invasive breast cancer, this is usually done at the same time as a mastectomy. During a typical axillary dissection, between five and twenty nodes may be removed. The number of nodes affected is more important information than how affected one node is. ​

During the axillary dissection, you will be put under general anesthesia. You will be directed to lay down with your arm lifted over your head to give access to the axilla. It's a normally quick and fairly painless procedure that most heal quickly from. 

An axillary dissection is usually necessary in order to effectively treat the disease, but it does have some potential complications. Common side effects include loss of sensation in the breast or axilla, limited arm mobility, and muscle weakness. Women are typically recommended to avoid lifting heavy objects and unnecessary strain to the area.

Many women experience no side effects, but it is important that you be aware of potential issues that may arise after surgery. If you do show symptoms of these side effects, let your doctor know. Physical therapy with a specialist in cancer therapy will be able to come up with treatments that may be able to help you. 

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